To find a foothold: a noob’s primer to Idaho’s City of Rocks

“That’s not a foothold. No way. You can’t just smear on that and move up.”

It was a cycle: I’d be climbing, sort of cruising, then hit a hard spot in a grade I thought I knew I could climb. First, I’d look down quizzically at the strange granite under my feet, searching for the edges that typically signal a proper foot placement in the rocks I normally climb. Not finding them, I’d perform the second step by reviewing the state of protection somewhere below the questionable way my feet were plastered on the rock. Sometimes it was a bomber cam, sometimes a spinning bolt. Then, I’d finish the routine with a string of curses, place my feet in the not-holds, and push off towards what felt like a certain lead fall down the sharp, slabby crystals. To my surprise, the final fall never actually happened, despite eight days of climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks and nearby Castle Rocks State Park.


Leading Batwings, 5.8 Photo by Jed Hohf

The City, as it’s more locally known, looks like some massive dog did its granite business all over the 6000ft verdant hills in southern Idaho. Blobs of a granite pluton poke through the surface soil to make for an immense playground of sticky, patina’d, crack-infested climbing that still has an exceptionally frontier feel to it: entry was free, the well went rusty on day three, camping is primitive, and forget about cell reception. Oh, and the wind blew and everything was dusty, even when it rained. I half expected John Wayne to show up (not wearing lycra (John Wayne Never Wore Lycra is a route there)) and start sending next to us. No tumbleweeds heralded his coming though.

A long, long time ago, the California Trail passed through the area and left wagon wheel ruts still visible in the exposed rock along the route. It was a popular westward pioneer route similar to the Oregon Trail, so some enterprising folks also signed their names on the rocks in axle grease. Somewhere around the hundred year mark, graffiti gains historic significance or something.

I didn’t sign the rocks with anything but sweat and chalk, or whatever impression a hasty round of swearing leaves while on lead. But the pioneer theme continued: I arrived in the modern day equivalent of a covered wagon (John’s mid-conversion Sprinter Van), and left in a station wagon stuffed to the gills with people moving to Montana for the summer. We wore tights like the pioneers (of many the routes in the ‘80s and ‘90s) did. And for the first five days or so, I climbed like a man in a distant country, repeating my stange cycle as I lead haltingly upwards.


Following John up Morning Glory, 5.8  Photo by Jed Hohf

Twain famously commented that traveling is fatal to prejudice. He was correct: last spring, I finally had a showdown with the granite crack climbing I’d avoided at home. Leavenworth and the Idaho Selkirks left me walking away with bloody knuckles and a determination to get a trad rack and start stuffing my poor hands into the rock more better-er. Which shows that traveling is both fatal to my prejudices and also a bit like Stockholm syndrome: first I hated the “hard” footwork at the City and was scared, then I was less scared, and then I grew to love the way that I could throw a smear on nearly anything and just stand up. That just does not work on quartzite, as I found out while scrabbling around on some home turf routes last week.


John works on his professor look.

Of course, the best case scenario for willies on the sharp end is to have been put there by a climbing buddy who knows your abilities better than you do. I had the good fortune to climb for the first five days with John G., a self-professed “old school trad climber” who works sorcery with small wires and leads well into the 5.11 range. 5.11 represents strong belaying for me. Yet me climbing mid-5.11 is board certified struggle-bussing. John is classic mentor material. He looks dashing in a sending sweater and Italian capris (of stretch fabric with reinforced knee patches). And better still, we laughed the whole time. I owe most of the progress I made down there to John and trying to keep up with him. Thanks John; I’ll get your pug “Top Dawg” mug back to the van sometime soon.


John leads Hairstyles and Attitudes, 5.11a at Castle Rocks. Photo by Devin Schmit


John does the pensive on Bath Rock.

John and I were hardly the only folks from the Flathead to make the trip to the City that week. Devin and Chris camped in the parking lot next to us. The Sherman and Cox clans put up their tenth straight year of climbing trips to the City, which represents the right way to raise your kids. Jed Hohf and his wife Carlie were there, Joe and his wife Kat (who need to go back to Smith), alongside a couple of gents I’ve met at the gym and since forgotten their names (sorry guys!).


Devin heads up on Tribal Boundaries, 5.10b


Chris Russell on Tribal Boundaries, 5.10b

Friendly faces continued at camp for the second half of the week. My sister Beth and her partner Matt rolled in from Seattle to meet my dad and stepmom, who came up from Logan. Then, in a seriously impressive display of intuitive thinking, my friend Akina made the drive up from SLC and instantly found us climbing with my dad at Practice Rock. All of the City to comb through, yet there she was.


Beth’s hammock at our second campsite. Photo by Akina Johnson

The arrival of family and Akina meant that I switched from chasing John into the role of showing folks around. We did some of the classics. Matt did his first proper multi pitch and first double rappel for his first route at the City on Raindance. The crew especially enjoyed Stripe Rock, climbing Cruel Shoes in two teams (5.7 bliss bolts the whole way).


Beth and I at the rap anchor for Cruel Shoes, 5.7 Photo by Akina Johnson

My favorite climb of the trip, though, was going up the spine of Stripe Rock (5.4?) with my dad. We did four pitches between super scant belay spots. I built a different kind of anchor every time. I forgot the camera, but not the look on my dad’s face when he topped out. Very lucky and gratifying to see him get back into climbing some thirty years after he last roped up.

Yet family and good travel partners don’t solve the bizarre and gap around 5.9 climbing at the City. Maybe it’s just the way the rock works, in that most of the granite flat enough to warrant a 5.9 slab has had much of the patina worn down, which seems to push it into harder or easier grades. Then, the steeper buckets that might be 5.9 often fall into the 5.8 realm, a catch-all for a frighteningly wide array of diverse and interesting climbing at the City. If nothing else, it stretched my mind out.


A nighttime climb of Private Idaho, 5.9 Photo by Devin Schmit

And similarly: all the stick clip toters at Smith Rock complaining about high first bolts should probably take a visit to the City, where my peasant notions about running it out right off the deck were quickly crushed and left to die. Take New York Is Not The City (5.10 or 5.9) as an example: a quick V2 move right off the deck leads to 40ft of unprotected, easy climbing. The first bolt is probably 50ft up there. If you need a place to challenge your gym climbing notions or refocus your understanding of the YDS, the City should be high on your list. Good skills with small TCUs and wires can cut down the runouts in many places, as John well proved.

The guidebook makes much mention of how the contentious practices and ideals of sport climbing were seen during the eighties and nineties at the City. However, with the advent of the area as a National Reserve (it’s still managed as a state park of Idaho), route development ran into a permitting process that seems to have slowed development to a glacial crawl. I’m keen to learn more about it, but it seems that most of the current work going into new routes and keeping up older ones is going on at Castle Rock State Park (which you should also visit) nearby. Expect some spinning bolts in various states of mank at the City. There’s a feeling of climbing inside of a time capsule, of visiting a different era of what rock climbing was.


Following John up some route in the Crackhouse area of Castle Rocks. He placed a hex in impeccable style, and then used a British accent for the rest of the climb. Photo by Devin Schmit

A note on cords: John and I wandered around the City for days with two 70m ropes in tow. Many of the climbs can’t even be toproped with a 70, so be prepared to tag line and double rope rap consistenly. Don’t bring a single 60m and be that climber.

Details I haven’t covered yet:

-Entry is free, yet camping overnight is part of an arcane and somewhat mystical process of reservations that you should take care of in advance. The park suggests that two cars, two tents, and eight people are somehow able to coexist in one camping spot—good luck making that happen.

-Pit toilets are near most the camping, but not all of it. A couple different water options meant it was fine when our well (at Bath Rock) went orange on day three.

-Showers, spotty cell reception, and a smattering of spendy groceries are available in Almo, as well as a hot spring that we didn’t visit. Definitely do your grocery shopping someplace much bigger before the trip.

-It’s high-ish desert: bring the salve/lotion, because you’re going to need it.

Recommended routes that we did (that I remember):

Five.fun

Bath Rock’s rebar route is the shortest via ferrata ever. Very worth it.

If you like long, flat, unprotectable runouts, the spine of Stripe rock can be done in 3-4 pitches between good gear anchor sections. My dad loved it. Bring a singles rack .3-4” and some big slings, plus two ropes to get down. 70m crosses the pitches well.

5.6-7

Raindance
Adolescent Homosapien
Intruding Dike
Wheat Thin
Cruel Shoes

5.8a-d

Rye Crisp
Carol’s Crack
Delay of Game
Batwings
Morning Glory
Fred Rasmussen
Too Much Fun

5.9

Private Idaho
Mystery Bolter
Scream Cheese

5.10

Bloody Fingers
Thin Slice
Lost Pioneers
Tribal Boundaries
Deez Guys
New York Is Not The City

5.11
Cairo

Huge thanks to all the partners, friends, and family for a killer trip. Also thanks to all the photographers who took photos when my single camera battery died.

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